History & Culture
The present state of Louisiana was underwater at the beginning of the Pleistocene epoch. The last Ice Age, which occurred around 10,000 years ago, resulted in a lowering of sea level, which exposed the northern part of Louisiana. Strong winds blew fine, silt-like material, called loess, over glaciers, and this material was carried far south. As wind speed decreased, the particles fell to the ground and formed the Louisiana Gulf Coastal Plain, in which Bayou Teche can be found.
The Bayou Teche is a former route of the Mississippi River, and a ridge of land, called the Coteau Ridge, exists along the Teche from Port Barre to New Iberia. This ridge of land formed when the Mississippi River overflowed its banks during annual floods, and the sediment that the river was carrying would deposit on the ground as the floodwaters subsided and the river returned to its own channel.
The large curves, or meanders, in the Teche indicate that it is a slow- moving waterway because older, slow-moving streams have cut their channels so deeply that in order to get their water to its destination, the water must flow laterally within the channel to increase the slope of the land to allow the water to continue to flow across flat land.
The meandering of the streams within this channel, as well as the floodplain around it, have resulted in areas with fertile soil that is easy to keep in good tilth for agricultural purposes. However, humans’ attempts to control flooding have all but eliminated the natural replenishing of fertile soil in the floodplains. These engineering practices have naturally impacted the landscape and its inhabitants, but without them, property damage and loss of human life would certainly be greater if not for these efforts.
Two major Native American tribes lived along the banks of the Teche for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans. They were the Chitimacha, who settled along the lower sections of the Bayou, and still have tribal lands around what is now Charenton, and the Attakapas tribe, which settled along the upper sections of the Bayou from its head waters around what is now Port Barre, to the area now known as St. Martinville. A Chitimacha legend gave the Teche its name. “Teche” is the Chitimacha word meaning “Snake.”
The Legend of Bayou Teche
Many years ago, in the days of the Tribe’s strength, there was a huge and venomous snake. This snake was so large, and so long, that its size was not measured in feet, but in miles. Its head was at what is now known as Morgan City and its tail at St. Martinville. This enormous snake had been an enemy of the Chitimacha for many years, because of its destruction to many of their ways of life. One day, the Chitimacha chief called together his warriors, and had them prepare themselves for a battle with their enemy. In those days, there were no guns that could be used to kill this snake. All they had were clubs and bows and arrows, with arrowheads made of large bones from the garfish.
Of course, a snake over ten miles long could not be instantly killed. The warriors fought courageously to kill the enemy, but the snake fought just as hard to survive. As the beast turned and twisted in the last few days of a slow death, it broadened, curved and deepened the place wherein his huge body lay. The Bayou Teche is proof of the exact position into which this enemy placed himself when overcome by the Chitimacha warriors.
Before European immigrants came to the area, Chitimacha roamed the Teche, fished it, and made their home there. Chitimacha used the Teche as one of their major trade networks. Several Chitimacha mounds abut the Teche.
At one time the Chitimacha were in danger of extinction. During this time many of them hid in the Atchafalaya Basin between the Bayou Teche and the Atchafalaya River. These small villages helped to assure their existence in a time of peril and danger of extinction.
The Chitimacha Indian reservation sits on a bend in the Bayou Teche. The city of Charenton, near the reservation, was once known as “Indian Bend.” Near the Chitimacha Indian reservation and Charenton the Bayou Teche comes closest to the Atchafalaya Basin, one of the largest swamp and wild areas in the nation. Today, the Chitimacha Indians have a casino on their reservation and they draw people from as far away as Corpus Christi Texas to the casino. When the Chitimacha were being hunted down, they had about 15 villages all around the Atchafalaya Basin.
Attakapas – Ishak
The Attakapas is a name given to this tribe of Indians by other Indians in the area, and literally means “man-eaters.” They were known due to their alleged custom of cannibalizing their enemies. They called themselves Ishak (ee-SHAK). The Attakapas were wiped out as a people by the early 1800s as a result of defeats by other tribes and disease contracted from early European settlers for which they had no immunity. The Attakapas were friendly with the Chitimacha, and traded with them.
Acadians and European Peoples
During the years 1519-1687 many explorers came to Louisiana, including Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto and René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, sponsored by France. The French explorers befriended the Native Americans but the Spanish and the British, for the most part, were not very well received by the Native Americans because these groups tended to mistreat them and attempt to replace their religious beliefs and customs with Christian values. These European countries were all trying to expand their empires into the New World. Thus began a colorful history of Louisiana switching hands several times before becoming a state.
European colonists came to Louisiana under the promise of a land of milk and honey, an illusion promoted by several governments and companies. Many settlers perished shortly after their arrival, and others either went back to Europe. Of those who remained, life was difficult. Some received land grants and became wealthy through the establishment of plantations and use of slave labor. Settlers from France, Spain, Britain, and Germany settled along the Mississippi River, but westward expansion into the Atchafalaya and Teche Basins shortly followed.
One of the more celebrated groups of South Louisiana’s mant colonial immigrants came from Acadie, which is now Nova Scotia, Canada. These peasant people of French descent were exiled from their homes in Canada when they refused to abandon their Roman Catholic beliefs to worship as members of the Church of England. Dispersed along the Atlantic coast, some found their way to south- central Louisiana and settled along the banks of the Bayou Teche.
These Acadians made their home here, worshipping as they desired, and living off the land as farmers, hunters, gatherers, and fishermen. Many customs in south-central Louisiana have their roots in the traditions of the Acadian settlers. Descendants of this group of settlers are still in the area and are proud of their “Cajun” heritage.
The Acadians arrived during Spanish Colonial rule and many settlements along the lower Bayou Teche, including New Iberia, still thrive today.
During the colonial period, there was much unrest among the people living in Louisiana and those governments trying to gain political control of the area, specifically, control over the Mississippi River. The country that controlled the river would essentially control the interior of North America through regulation of commerce.
Spanish colonial rule ended in 1800, and treaties weakened Spanish rule in the southern part of the New World. France eventually regained Louisiana, but disease and revolt against French military rule in the Caribbean caused Napoleon to sell the Port of New Orleans and the remainder of the Louisiana Territory to the United States of America in one of history’s largest land purchases in 1803. The settlers of Louisiana petitioned for statehood and received it in 1812.
Turmoil over slavery and states rights enveloped the young United States, which found itself at war with itself when the southern states seceded from the Union in 1860. The Civil War was fought in 1860-1864, and Cajun country in Louisiana was mostly untouched throughout the war, until after the Union army gained control of the Mississippi River. Union Army General Nathaniel Banks began his Red River Campaign, in which he led a series of defeats against the Confederate Army as he traveled south along the Red River. His troops eventually made it into the area of Bayou Teche, and many antebellum homes were occupied and became temporary headquarters for the Union Army, as well as battlefield hospitals. When General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General U.S. Grant, Reconstruction began, and slavery ended.
Check out Historian and Archivist Shane Bernard’s blog logging his research for his upcoming book about the Teche: http://bayoutechedispatches.blogspot.com